Wearing my late mum's clothes has brought her back to life

Wearing my late mum’s clothes has brought her back to life: By JENNIFER BARTON, who says it’s a wonderful way to awaken fond memories

  • Holly Willoughby wore her mother’s peplum dress to celebrate her 40th birthday
  • The TV presenter did it as a way to feel connected while separated in lockdown
  • Jennifer Barton does the same to remember her mother, who died 15 years ago 
  • She is wearing the eccentric clothes after they were in storage for over a decade
  • Jennifer explained that the clothes have helped her come to terms with her grief

Carefully pulling on the vintage Ungaro jacket, I do up each exquisite raspberry button and decide what to wear with it. That red statement clutch she loved? The rhinestone sunglasses she was never without?

My mother adored clothes and I now wear her outfits, a riot of colour and style, to feel close to her.

TV presenter Holly Willoughby touchingly does the same; she wore a peplum dress owned by her mum to celebrate her 40th birthday last week, as a way to feel connected despite being separated by lockdown.

For me, the feelings are just as bittersweet, but there will be no happy reunion once the pandemic is over for me and my mother — she died 15 years ago when I was 23.

Jennifer Barton (pictured in mother’s clothes) has started wearing her late mother’s eccentric clothes as a way to help her come to terms with her grief

Heartbroken and shocked at her death, I left her clothes in storage for over a decade, but since having my four children (aged ten, eight, five and three) I’ve been telling them about the eccentric grandmother they will sadly never have the chance to meet. 

I want to celebrate her, share her memories and bring her back to life. Through her clothes, I’ve found a way.

The collection is eclectic and eye-catching and I’ve started wearing a textured belt with triangular buckle from New York accessories label Susan Bennis/Warren Edwards here, a brown Armani leather jacket with ruffled trim there.

Some people might find it strange or morbid to wear her clothes — but it has helped me come to terms with my grief in a powerful way.

I even have a few girlfriends who have felt inspired to start wearing the clothes of beloved parents or grandparents they’ve lost.

For my children, it’s as if they’re starting to see glimpses of who she was through her wardrobe and they have begun asking questions about her again.

‘Wait, Granny was a doctor and would wear that to work?’, they’ll gape as I shimmy into a red silk Ungaro dress with a subtle-yet-striking coffee cup print and about a thousand buttons down the front and on the cuffs. 

‘Well girls, you see, your grandmother — my mother, Diana — was nothing like other mothers.’

Her mother (pictured above with Jennifer) died 15 years ago, when Jennifer was 23-years-old, and her clothes remained in storage for more than a decade

Elegant, intelligent, marching to the beat of her own drum, I feel immense pride at having the kind of mother I did.

I never saw her simply walk into a room. She would strut. Every head would turn to gawk at the elegant woman teetering in heels. She didn’t own flats.

It wasn’t always easy being her daughter. I was a shy child whose goal was to disappear. My mother made this impossible as she was striking, in style and personality.

She was also an outsider, an immigrant from Ukraine and a single mother mingling and working in a male-dominated field as a dermatologist in New York.

I was painfully aware of the stares when she’d arrive at the school pick-up. She’d be dressed like a character from a film, or a painting in a museum: an alluring femme fatale in an oversized red fox fur coat over a skin-tight purple leather skirt and Impressionistic printed blouse. 

Blending in wasn’t possible for the child whose mother picked her up from ballet dressed in a designer bat cape.

For my mother, dressing up daily wasn’t a chore: it was a privilege. Growing up in Soviet-era Ukraine, she collected fashion magazines, planning looks in her head. Later in life, she was a frustrated fashion obsessive. 

She couldn’t just slip on her fitted green lace and velvet ribbon frock, styled with fur cuff bracelets from Burberry and waltz out the door.

No, she had bills to pay, a child to raise. Even at work, she delighted in adding touches to her lab coats: having them cut in more feminine silhouettes.

‘Please don’t come by my office after school if you’re planning to wear that today,’ she’d say, looking unimpressed at 15-year-old me, dressed in jeans, a rhinestone-studded tank top and trainers, the uniform of every single girl I knew.

But Jennifer (pictured in mother’s designer clothes) now wears the clothes to bring back her fond memories of her mother and as a way for her children to get to know their grandmother

‘God forbid any of my patients think we’re related.’

Back then I laughed but would ask myself why my being ordinary was a sin in her eyes. It felt like we were from different planets.

I worried I would never be good enough for my mother: I never felt smart enough or stylish enough. But she made it clear I was all she needed, telling me that she’d never found someone like her, who understood her, until she had me.

My father, an Austrian doctor, was never in the picture — my mother never wanted him to be.

It wasn’t until I was at university in England that I gained the confidence to see my mother was right: dressing up — and differently — was a liberation.

There was something about being an outsider that made me feel I could express myself through fashion more easily. But as I was heading to lectures in heels and puffball skirts, my mother was using clothing to hide her gaunt figure, the result of months without sleeping or eating properly.

As she looked so put together, no one suspected she was falling apart. She had been on anti-anxiety medication for years, initially as she had trouble sleeping. One day when the medication ran out, she had a mental breakdown, suffering hallucinations.

Because of her worsening mental health, she came to live with me. During those months, when she’d look at me, it was like she was looking through me or past me, her gaze fixed, but her eyes unfocused.

Eight months later, after a fraught week of paranoid fantasies, she was admitted to a mental hospital. She took her life there.

For me, she was gone before that moment, the minute she stopped caring which outfit she was wearing.

After her death, I felt alone, except for those clothes, most of which were in a storage space outside Manhattan. Eventually, I shipped them to the home I’d bought with my boyfriend, Will.

But I was pregnant with my first child and felt too overwhelmed to cope with going through the boxes. So I shut them away in the cellar and moved forward with my life: starting my writing career, marrying Will, having a family.

Holly Willoughby wore her mother’s peplum dress to celebrate her 40th birthday (right) to feel connected to her mother (left) while they were separated during lockdown

As the years passed, I felt a magnetic pull towards those boxes, but still feared emotion would overcome me and affect how I mothered my own children as a result of opening them. 

Finally, last November, I felt ready — I was neither pregnant, nursing or sleep-deprived for the first time in a decade. I emptied the cellar and her clothes emerged from the darkness.

I pulled out the Ungaro jacket, the one that made my mother look like a living bouquet. And I decided to wear it. Putting on my mother’s jacket, I felt lighter. It was like I’d been reunited with her spirit.

I could sense the sway of her hips as I did up the buttons and could almost smell her Guerlain Aqua Allegoria fragrance again.

I heard her laughter as I put the final touch on my outfit: the Cartier gold magnifying glass necklace she wore daily. It dawned on me that going through her things was a privilege, not a hassle to be endured.

Since then, I’ve been trying to wear something of my mother’s every day, because it makes me feel connected to her.

Although I have a different body type and a completely opposite style, she’d be proud that I now turn heads, too. 

Not because I’m elegant and put-together, but I certainly stand out, in my own way. I wear handbags shaped like popcorn, and Disney characters dance on my Spandex leggings.

My mother was right: clothes are transformative. Bringing her back to life through her wardrobe has allowed me to feel happiness again — those clothes have brought us back together.

Follow Jennifer’s journey with her mother’s wardrobe on Instagram @jenbnyc

You can call the Samaritans on 116 123 or visit samaritans.org

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